Friday, February 22, 2019

Down in the Lucky Country – beggars, charlatans and thieves?

Credit: Ian Cochrane
Flinders Steet Station, Melbourne

Hard times and cold nights in the world's most liveable city.

Straight from a long lunch, I raise my umbrella and head for the pedestrian bridge. Crossing the river, I turned onto the station path; Melbourne cold and soaked after 6-days rain. I recall the soulful sounds of an upright 2-string Vietnamese fiddle commingling with the distant strains of bagpipes that echo from under the bluestone bridge. There’s the flash of a tram – all green and gold – city-bound clatter and the clang of a bell.

Looking at my watch, I’ve shaken the umbrella and turned to drop down the steps, I scan my ticket after dodging smokers engrossed in that final cigarette and push on; the bang of the rotating barricade rebounding on tunnel walls, me passing busy office workers pushing in the opposite direction. At the foot of my platform up-ramp something stirred; a dark shadowed mound, commuters bypassing in the gloom.

Moving closer, I stopped short of my ramp.A hooded, stooped vision sat – a man I guessed – jacket back against the subway wall, surrounded by bulging plastic bags; blanket-wrapped knees pulled up under a stubble chin. And an ancient upright shopping trolley; tartan canvas ripped, miss-matched wheels.

I took the extra steps to drop some coins by the cup, before stepping back and rushing on and up the ramp. At the top I paused. Peering up at the board, I’ve missed my train, but really wasn’t bothered; preoccupied with thoughts of the man in the tunnel below.

I’ve asked the platform attendant. "Yeah mate, I know who you mean." He shook his head. "Don’t see him much though; reckon he’s about 18. We call him Brian.” I must have looked surprised. “Yeah, we give them all names. I see new faces every day `round here. You know…I reckon there’s thousands of them. They could fill a football ground with the homeless here!" His eyes narrowed in thought. "How can that bloody-well be?” He again paused, scratched his chin and twisted the corner of his mouth. “I’ve no idea where Brian goes at night. Someone sees him across the road at St. Pauls when it’s really cold; after some charity soup I suppose.” He pointed up the platform. “But I reckon he sleeps in the rail yards. He don't like the refuges; says there's no privacy, so he moves around a bit.” I stared back down the bustling ramp to the tunnel; at the commuters surging up and down.

Today it’s almost 12-months since standing on that same covered platform with Brian sheltering below, me having again spent time in the great cities of Europe and the cultural smorgasbord of New York. I’m home, lucky to reside the city of my choosing, and immersing myself in the largest cultural event in Australia – the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2013 – but there’s also the eclectic live music that keeps me here; the architecture, film and theatre. There’s sport if you’re that way inclined. And yes, there are the people of course; even dressed in clothes some ubiquitous shade of black.

But here on the platform, there’s a lingering image that’s returned; a darker side of the urban dream. It’s Brian’s half hidden face, down in the subterranean gloom; seemingly oblivious city-goers rush and stumble past as he hides among his heaps of plastic. I can’t see his eyes but expect the light is already dimmed. He’s despondent with chin on knees, bare hands grey, knuckles white; a small plastic cup, empty and on its side; my loose coins scattered, shining but inconsequential. Him sitting on the damp concrete, bent knees pulled up; a grubby envelope, flat on the wet ground, smudged words in pencil by a shaky hand: 'HELP PLEASE'.

I stare out across the rail yards and into the rusted jungle of tracks and posts. I’m stuck with the thought of Brian, sleeping rough, lugging his meagre belongings and heading into another Melbourne winter.

I zip up my Gore-Tex jacket and lift my eyes from the rail yard maze, to the distant tiers and light towers of the Melbourne Football Ground; the 1853 `MCG’ being the home of Australian Rules football and considered an iconic world sports venue with capacity for 100,000 fans.

It seems appropriate that the Melbourne City Mission hopes for 1500 willing souls to pay $60 a head to rough-it; for the privilege of bedding down under the stars in the hallowed concourse, to help end youth homelessness. The ticket includes a beanie, pillow and a cardboard box to sleep on. There are bread rolls, soup and a meat pie for dinner. In the morning, breakfast is a muffin, with tea or coffee. I’m sure Brian would approve, especially if offered a quiet seat somewhere off to the side, along with a muffin.

The train pulls in with a rumble, my mind wandering to the plight of 105,000 homeless in this `The Lucky Country’ of 23 million, and the results of yet another survey awarding Melbourne the 'Most Liveable City in the World'; along with the hopeful words of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights –`Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.’

I wonder how the rest of the less-lucky world is doing.

About the Writer

iancochrane is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on Down in the Lucky Country – beggars, charlatans and thieves?

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By riginal on July 08, 2013 at 05:50 am

Ian isn't it a mess? Gave a young lady "out of it" a pie and sad to see this. Working in the city gave an old 'hobo?' sitting next to me at lunchtime a piece of cake. He said thank you, wrapped it carefully and put it in his pocket. Made me feel the 'hobo.' There but for the grace of God go us all,it is so bloody wretched in a country such as ours but the drug culture etc is here to stay and most honest 'undercover' cops such as my young brother-in-law admit that they are banging their collective heads on the drug wall. That's why i like the Salvos as they don't tend to judge...just help where they can. Also the volunteers who feed these people and don't discriminate. Poverty unfortuneatly does, and successive governments although not totally to blame would do well to take note of society's lowest common denominator and act accordingly in some measure. The shame must be shared, absorbed and acted upon in some form one would hope. The land of plenty with the ever present cliff of disparity beckoning. Pretty harrowing, and it is hard to dismiss from ones thoughts. Whatever excuses your mind conjures. Guilt is so prevalent, when you think of discarded hope...Begs belief but it stares you in the face,or the conscience?

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By iancochrane on July 08, 2013 at 11:49 am

Yeah Rig,

have travelled quite a bit, but to see that poverty in a city like Melbourne is quite a jolt; the gap between the rich & poor getting bigger even there.

There's always that old chestnut of an excuse that the poor sods down the bottom are just bludgers...& some about the place are. But I don't think we should judge all by the con artists. There are people struggling, with everything stacked against them at some point in time. I tend to believe any of us could find ourselves in that terrible place.

Cheers, ic

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By iancochrane on August 08, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Greetings all.

Interesting - have been browsing my Broowaha stat's to see this story has just reached 1000-readers, making it my most-read effort by far. Amazing!

Why do some stories attract readers & others not? To be honest, I've no idea...I just write. Nevertheless, I have to say that this story was a surpising No1 for me, although certainly happy with it as a part of the whole. (I do have my own favourites I guess.)

Anyway, enough of my rambling...thanks so much to all for taking the time to read. Cheers, ic

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